The act of looking away has been one of the hallmarks of New York City street behavior for longer than most can remember, whether it be looking away from panhandlers asking for spare change or from a toddler having a temper tantrum. We all have our destinations to get to and our deadlines to make, so on long commutes we usually put our heads down and barrel through the subway cars and corridors, oblivious to what happens around us. New Yorkers have gotten this aloof disengagement down to a science.
Yet despite this, a community of underground performers (literally) has developed and thrives in the subways of New York. Their audiences are always inadvertent, and are therefore often unresponsive or unappreciative. That is the nature of spontaneous performance imposed upon others – the reaction is often unpredictable. Nevertheless, these subway performers persist in putting on their acts.
One afternoon I set off down into the subway with my Metro Card, a wad of singles, and no destination in mind, intending to wander the busier stops in search of those very performers. I made sure that I had enough money to tip every performer I encountered, as it has become a common courtesy to tip any street performer you engage with in any capacity. I tried to photograph and record all of them, but four particular performances stood out from the rest.
The first was a drummer at Grand Central. I found that drumming was one of the most common acts down in the subway, probably because of its simplicity. The drummers usually play on large plastic buckets, pipes, trashcans, and anything else that happens to be nearby. It seems like the everyman’s subway act. This performer was the least flamboyant; not only in his performance, but also in his behavior and dress. When people dropped dollars into his baseball hat, he would only glance up and give them a small grateful smile before returning his focus to his makeshift plastic bucket drums. I tipped the incongruously demure drummer and carried on.
At this point I took a brief detour to 86th Street for a late lunch, and while passing by the Metropolitan Museum of Art I heard a saxophone player and stopped to listen. He made a point to keep shouting out to all of the Chinese tourists that he spoke Chinese, which he often incorporated into his performance. He also had what seemed to be a fairly recent photo of himself in full American military uniform sitting by his saxophone case in the hopes of encouraging more tips. This bid to attract the more patriotic passers-by seemed to be working; his case seemed pretty full of singles. After finishing my lunch, I tipped him and descended into the subway once more.
On the S train to Times Square, I encountered a two-man a capella act, singing something vaguely Bruno Mars-y. It seemed to be a very spontaneous, casual performance, and they were the friendliest performers I saw that day. Furthermore, they were the only people I encountered on my adventure who performed on the subway itself. This method gives the performer a literally captive audience, and seems to be used mostly by the unauthorized performers. I handed them a dollar when the train arrived at my station, and on my way off the subway car one of them called after me and (in what he probably thought was a rather poetic manner) complimented my brown eyes. I would have been flattered if not for the fact that my eyes are blue. I let the doors close behind me and went on in search of more performers.
At this point, I had exhausted my limited knowledge of places to find subway performers. I went up to the main level of the Times Square station and found a friendly looking police officer with an equally friendly looking German Shepherd and asked if he could give me any leads. After chatting about this class and the crazy performers we’d both encountered, he told me to check out Herald Square, saying that there was always some kind of performance happening there. After thanking him and going on my way, I realized that I forgot to ask him for his name, and I only knew that his dog’s name was Elvis. Looking back, this was the only time that I actually engaged in conversation with anyone that night. There’s a kind of barrier between performer and audience that I could never bring myself to violate, no matter how approachable the performer seemed to be.
I couldn’t be more grateful to that police officer, because that last act that I saw in Herald Square was by far the most interesting. I gathered that the performer’s name was Jeffrey from the large, elaborate, and very official-looking sign next to his tip hat that said “Jeffrey the One Man Band.” And he certainly lived up to his title; he was holding a guitar, and attached to every limb were bungee cords that, when pulled, could operate any one of the many instruments attached to his back. He was a real performer, in every sense of the phrase. I was only one in a sea of onlookers; unlike all of the other performers I had seen that night, he made people stop in their tracks and actually take the time to watch to him, instead of just listening as they passed by. He was such a spectacle; I couldn’t imagine even the most determined commuter not being drawn to watch him.
It was getting late, and the subways were gradually becoming less desirable places to be, so after a long day of exploration I began to make my way back home. As I rode the D train back, I reflected upon the evening. I realized that every performer I saw was male, and with the exception of Jeffrey the One Man Band, none of them were white. Additionally, the stations where I found all of these subway performers were consistently busy, had many connections, and were primarily tourist destinations. I felt that despite all of the unique performances I saw that day, I had only touched the tip of a gigantic subway performer iceberg. If I may indulge in a cliché, I think the importance of stopping and smelling the proverbial roses is lost on many New Yorkers today. Everyone is in such a hurry that they miss out on some pretty incredible things. We could all benefit from taking some time every now and then to absorb all the remarkable art and people around us that we sometimes miss when we’re preoccupied with looking away.